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Meet 90-Year-Old Huỳnh Văn Ba, the Father of Hội An's Foldable Lanterns

In his 90s, Huỳnh Văn Ba’s hair has turned completely silver, but when he was telling me stories about lanterns, his voice and eyes sparkled with a particularly lively hope. Thanks to Ba’s invention — collapsible lanterns — Hội An’s distinctive souvenir can easily follow the footsteps of international tourists to all corners of the globe.

In Cẩm Hà, Hội An, a house’s deck is chock-full of bamboo strips. Above, a handful of yellow lanterns dangle in the air. In the yard, there’s a row of blossoming palm trees and peonies. This is where Huỳnh Văn Ba lives with his family. At 91, he can’t always visit the family workshop as often as before due to a leg injury. But he still misses the small, sun-drenched workshop, so he still peels bamboo strips and builds lantern frames for fun.

In Hội An, Ba is officially recognized as the first person to come with foldable lanterns decades ago, making them easier to take home for travelers to the ancient town. Đèn lồng Hội An, from just a street decoration, has become a tourism product and famous souvenir of Central Vietnam. It’s a testament to how traditional crafts have successfully adapted to their hometown’s tourism aspirations.

Huỳnh Văn Ba, 90, was the father of foldable lanterns in Hội An.

Ba’s youth was interwoven with lanterns; peeling bamboo, honing bamboo strips, and cutting fabrics have become second nature to him. The clip-clop of wood and the vivid shades of textiles filled his younger years. Despite having been in the trade for nearly a century and witnessing numerous changes in his hometown, he can still recall with surprising clarity the episodes of his storied career.

Huỳnh Văn Ba was born in Thăng Bình, Quảng Nam Province, but has lived in Hội An for most of his life. Originally, Ba worked as a weaver for a major wicker co-op, making products like bamboo curtains, vases, and baskets.

In the 1990s, as more and more foreign tourists started visiting Vietnam, Hội An saw a renewed sense of purpose. Its ancient streets welcomed more foot traffic while travelers were delighted to amble through the town’s bougainvillea-shaded lanes that are peppered with rows and rows of colorful lanterns.

“Back then, so many foreign tourists wanted to buy lanterns to bring back as souvenirs,” Ba shares with me. “Aware of the demand, I started making lanterns to sell in my free time, and the orders just kept increasing,” he reminisces about his beginning in the trade.

Ba's workshop in Hội An.

One day, an Australian tourist visited Ba’s shop expressing interest in getting one of his lanterns to bring back home. Alas, it was too big for the luggage compartment. This encounter gave him the idea to make a foldable version.

That evening, Ba returned home and immediately started tinkering with his bamboo, chisel and drills. The project stayed on his mind for months after the chance meeting, as he mulled over the mechanisms behind paper fans, umbrellas, and other common items with built-in foldability. The first version was born after many rounds of trials and errors, based on the structure of the umbrella. After half a year of failed experiments, Ba finally arrived at a successful prototype as the first foldable lantern came to life.

“I was a round-shaped lantern with a frame made of bamboo strips similar to the traditional design, but this time, there are holes on both ends of the strips so they could be attached to a pivot, enabling the lantern to fit neatly into the luggage and then expand once hung up,” he proudly describes his first invention. “Woah, I was on cloud nine when the lantern became a reality. It was really worth six months of constant tinkering.” From then on, the technique Ba devised was imparted to every lantern artisan in Hội An.

Huỳnh Văn Trung, Huỳnh Văn Ba's son.

Ba’s proudest achievement in his time-honored career is successfully passing down the trade to his son and many apprentices in Hội An. At their colorful workshop on Phan Đình Phùng Street, lantern materials fill every corner from the gate to the rooms inside. Sitting in a tiny space of less than 10 square meters, Huỳnh Văn Trung, Ba’s son, is squarely focusing on bending bamboo strips to attach onto the steel framework to make the base for the lantern. “Hội An’s lanterns are very diverse in shapes and sizes, such as oval, garlic bulb, square pyramid, gourd, etc. They might look different, but the materials and steps to make them are generally the same. The main materials are bamboo and silk. There are 10 main steps to arrive at a finished product, which can be divided into two phases: making the frame and putting the fabric on,” Trung details.

Making the frame of a lantern.

Though the process might look simple at a glance, it requires much attention to detail and patience from artisans.

The behind-the-scenes of lantern-making.

The skeleton of the lantern allows it to expand and collapse accordingly.

Bamboo strips are held together by nylon strings.

Though the process might look simple at a glance, it requires much attention to detail and patience from artisans. Firstly, the bamboo must be of a certain age, boiled and soaked in brine for 10–15 days to boost its endurance and ward off insects. The bamboo is then sun-dried and peeled into thin strips. The fabric used, sourced from Hà Đông Village, often features understated patterns.

According to Trung, the movement determining the final look of the lanterns is honing the bamboo strips. The smoother and more uniform they are, the better the lanterns will turn out. Bigger designs will naturally need more and longer strips. After the honing is done, the strips are cropped to the same length and two holes are drilled to attach them to a frame.

After the frame is done, neatly cut pieces of fabric are pasted onto the bamboo strips.

Pieces of silk are attached to the frame using glue.

Workers trim off excess fabric and polish other parts of the lanterns.

After the scaffolding is ready, workers glue fabric sheets onto the frame. Each piece is measured carefully to ensure that the lantern surface is wrinkle-free. A complete lantern is done after excess fabric is trimmed off and other decorative finishing touches are ready. Beside the time-honored design, Hội An’s lantern workshops have also unveiled new designs and a range of textile choices to appeal to shifting aesthetic preferences.

Today, there are several styles of Hội An lanterns.

Following his very detailed explanation of the lantern-making process, Trung reminisces about the turning point he went through 20 years ago. He was living in Saigon and had no interest in continuing the family trade. Once his first child was born, they decided to return to Hội An.

“My dad was already quite old by then. We were aware of his concerns over how to maintain the traditional craft, so my wife and I started to learn. At first, I honestly didn’t find it interesting, but he was very encouraging, showing me every step patiently. Every time I set foot outside and see lanterns everywhere, I felt happy that I could contribute my small part to beautify Hội An. So I kept at it, and it’s been 20 years since,” he recounts.

Lantern-lit streets are a cozy Hội An specialty.

When in Hội An, try to stroll slowly on the ancient streets in the early morning, when the atmosphere still retains its quietude, save for the echo of street calls reverberating across narrow alleys. Immerse in that pristine ambiance when the first rays of sunrise pierce through the thin veil of morning fog.

Peppered across this peaceful picture are the myriads of colorful lanterns, the painstaking creative labor of generations of Hội An artisans hard at work keeping the regional art form alive. And amongst them, Huỳnh Văn Ba’s family is still going strong as ever.

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